David Ainsworth: Has charities’ response to media criticism really been ‘toothless and incoherent’? Well, yes

02 Jun 2016 Voices

Charities’ response to a rash of critical stories in national newspapers last week prompted the ire of Oxfam’s communications director. David Ainsworth asks whether he's right, and it’s time the sector fought back.

This week, there have been at least four critical stories about charities in the newspapers. The most prominent piece was on the front page of the Sunday Times, but that’s actually not typical of the attacks on the sector. A more normal approach was found inside the same paper, attacking the National Trust for supporting housing, and in the Observer and the Daily Mail, attacking Cancer Research UK over its pensions.

Last week Jack Lundie, the communications director of Oxfam, got a bit hot under the collar at one of Civil Society's conferences, NGO Insight. The charity sector, he said, had taken a hammering in the press, and no one appeared inclined to do much about it. The weekend’s responses proved him largely right, too. Both the National Trust and CRUK were pretty lacklustre.

Lundie criticised NCVO and Acevo, in particular, and that was what obviously appeared as our headline. He called them toothless, incoherent and lacking imagination, which was a bit harsh, although they don't seem to have minded very much. If anything, in fact, they seem happy to have taken a bit of flak, if only because it showed someone was taking the problem seriously.

Lundie's central theme, though, was not to bash the umbrella bodies but to call for a proper response, from all charities, to a startlingly long and often unfair series of media assaults on the sector.

I can see why he's annoyed. Yesterday this publication wrote four separate stories about press criticism of the sector. There have been almost daily articles by the nationals on the subject. By and large, charities’ response has been either to do nothing, or to make a weak response and hope that the issue will go away.

Responses have been couched in defensive, cautious, unappetising language of the policy wonk, not the ordinary member of the public, most responses have been limited to the channel where the criticism initially occurred, and there has been little attempt to proactively communicate a different message about the sector.

All this badly needs to change, although I certainly wouldn’t lay all the blame at the doors of umbrella organisations.

I've said before that newspapers have identified the charity sector as weak, vulnerable, corrupt, and ripe for stories exposing wrongdoing. They believe their readers are losing trust in big charities. They think that the sector's best known bodies are squandering donors' cash, and are out of touch with the public.

In short, the press are going to keep writing about charities, unless something else dramatic happens.

There's no doubt that Lundie's right and the response so far has been weak. From conversations with Sir Stephen Bubb of Acevo and Sir Stuart Etherington of NCVO, it's obvious that they're deeply dissatisfied with the way big charities have responded. They feel hampered and unhappy because there's no consensus among charity leaders about whether there's a problem, and how we should deal with it.

Why the weak responses?

The chief executives who deny there's a problem are perhaps assuming that because no one has come for them yet, their charities are safe. Or perhaps they believe that because headline trust in charities hasn't really moved, and donations haven't fallen, that the public don't really listen to the media.

The first instance sounds like the Churchillian description of an appeaser - one who feeds the crocodile, hoping it will eat him last. The second, as I've said often enough to bore those who know me well, ignores the enormous time lag between public dissatisfaction and changes in public behaviour. Dealing with public trust is like being at the helm of an oil tanker. Even after you turn the wheel, you keep drifting the other way for a long time.

I would also say to these people that it's obvious that the charity sector is not well understood. So even if it's not directly costing you money, you still have a problem. You are relying for support on people who don't understand your model. Whichever way you look at it, that's not wise. It just hasn't turned into a crisis yet.

One answer is obviously to take a chance. Do nothing, and hope a crisis doesn't happen on your watch. But if you do that, you've just taken a punt with your reputation – one which doesn't seem to have great odds. Surely it’s better to solve the problem.

How do you solve the problem?

The stock answer is more transparency. Better annual reports. More declarations around pay and expenses. All of which is fine, but I don't think really gets to the issue. That sort of stuff is useful to point to, and it impresses the more engaged supporter. But it's Joe Public you need to talk to, and Joe Public thinks about charities for maybe ten minutes a week. Even when he does think about charities, he's not thinking terribly hard.

So we need better solutions than that, and broadly, there are three things.

Behave better

The first answer is simply to make sure you have no case to answer. Charities, by and large, are very good at promoting ethical behaviours in their own fields. They're not so hot elsewhere. The need is for charities to be ethical in all their dealings, rather than following what an investment manager once described to me as a "dogs don't smoke" policy - the idea that it's fine for an animal charity to invest money in tobacco companies because dogs don't smoke. Or to put it another way, so long as you behave ethically with your beneficiaries, you can be a right bastard to everyone else.

Public sector organisations are used to thinking with a "what would the papers think?" mentality. But I'm not sure I'd advocate that. It leads to some weird decisions. The real question is whether you could justify your actions to a lay supporter. Not necessarily get them to agree, but at least feel proud of yourself while you did it.

That's the most proactive activity, of course, but in the mood the papers are in, that won't necessarily help. Apart from anything else, while sometimes charities are singled out one by one, sometimes it's the whole sector under attack, and you can easily find yourself being tarred with the same brush as others. The Times story about high fundraising costs would be a good example.

Have an effective defence

My second tip is try and see the problem coming. Try to guess the most common lines of attack, and be prepared to act quickly. Expect, though, that you won't get a fair hearing from the original source of the story. They've already invested time in a story which is going to hammer you. Even if you can prove the story's nonsense, your message is likely to go unheard.

But that doesn't mean you're defenceless. You can spread your own message elsewhere. TV and radio programmes will follow up and will let you speak. Other papers may enjoy a follow up story which rebuts the first one. Use your own website. Use social media.

Just make sure you respond to the allegations, rather than blaming the national media for writing the story in the first place.

Saying the press were unfair is like blaming the weather for the failure of your fundraising event. Anyone you talk to will just shrug and say "Oh, bad luck. Didn't it occur to you that it might rain?"

And after all, the newspapers don't just work one way. There are still many more positive stories about charities than there are negative ones.

(If you're going to complain to anyone, go direct to the paper. I’m slightly hesitant to give this advice, given my profession, but if you're ever on the receiving end of a dodgy headline, always kick up a fuss, regardless of whether you think it'll get the story changed. The journalist probably won't back down but if you can make yourself inconvenient enough, they'll think twice before they hassle you next time. Enjoy yourself making their life awkward. They can’t make it any worse. After all, newspapers are monoliths but journalists are people. Waste loads of their time and make yourself monumentally bothersome when they're next on deadline. Go to IPSO. If you do get any sort of correction, press release it to all that journalist's direct competitors. They won’t print it, but they’ll be warned.)

What doesn't work - as we surely all know by now - is keeping quiet and hoping they stop kicking you. Nor, if you are one of many charities under attack, does it make much sense to hope someone else is braver than you, and steps up to speak.

Really there are only two situations here. Either your position is defensible, in which case you should defend it. Or it's indefensible, in which case you should probably start saying sorry, and soon.

Proactivity is vital

But really, the most important thing is that the sector starts to be proactive and to coordinate - to do the things which Jack Lundie and NCVO and Aecvo are calling for. Because this is all about framing the argument – setting the terms for the debate. If charities let the Tory party and the right wing press set the basis for the discussion, they've already lost. Charities have to be proactive and start spreading their message first – chief executives are cheap at the price; administration costs are a nonsense; your donations are really well spent. They have to do it before the bad headlines appear.

There is a standard communications process to follow here. Charities know it well, because they use it to communicate on their causes. Identify who your audience are, and where they are. Identify what channels are best to reach them, and what you want to say. Identify what their key issues are and how to address them. Distil down your message to its purest essence - spend a day identifying what you'll say if you get a minute - and get going on hammering it home.

The frustrating thing is that charities are so good at this. The sector is full of brilliant communicators, with an instinctive understanding of the mind of the ordinary supporter.

The charity sector is not incapable of defending itself. Charities have the ability. Now they just need the will.

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